‘I don’t know’ is too easy

“I don’t know” is a banned phrase in CaliforniaTeacherGuy’s classroom.

Many of my students are so afraid of making mistakes that they don’t even try to formulate intelligent responses to my questions. When I ask them their opinion about a poem or a story we have just read, they automatically reply, “I don’t know.” They seem to think that thinking is too hard, and “I don’t know” is an easy way out.

But as I was walking by starlight early this morning, I decided to outlaw the phrase “I don’t know” in my classroom. Instead, I’m going to teach the kids to say, “I’m not sure, but I think …”

When I was a sailing counselor, many decades ago, I would tell nervous girls to make mistakes. I promised not to let them drown or yell at them. They were much more afraid of being yelled at. I also taught my daughter to ride a bicycle by making her practice crashing (on the lawn). She couldn’t ride until she lost her fear of falling down. On the other hand, nobody in my family ever has said “I don’t know” when there was a chance to express an opinion.

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Comments

  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    In Army leadership school in 1949 I was taught that the old tradition of beating up and tearing down trainees was no longer allowed. Following The Doolittle commission report, we were to explain what we expected them to learn, then drill them until they were proficient, explaining their error at every step. No yell, no cuss, no hit. It worked. In subsequent years I guess the movies influenced too many DIs to go back to yelling. Pity. Gurkhas, among the world’s best infantry, will not accept being yelled at. Other warriors should not have to either.

  2. tabitharuth says:

    “On the other hand, nobody in my family ever has said “I don’t know” when there was a chance to express an opinion.”

    Joanne-we must be related!

  3. I hate it when students say, “I don’t know.” This is a good time to eradicate that loathsome phrase and get kids to start thinking. Or maybe I’ll wait until next semester. I don’t know.

  4. Independent George says:

    I’m of the exact opposite opinion – in my experience, an honest “I don’t know” is a heck of a lot better than a random guess pulled out of the ether.

  5. I want a mechanic who knows how and does not guess fixing my brakes. I bet everyone else does too. There are times when guesing is appropriate and risk free. It is important that we teach the difference.

  6. And then there’s always, “I don’t know right now but I know where to get the information.” I’d rather tell a student “I can’t answer your question right now; give me a chance to look it up” than bluff and answer wrong.

  7. Back in the day, one of the “approved” answers to questions at the Naval Academy was “I’ll find out.”

  8. I don’t see why “I don’t know” is such a problem. Really, teachers seem to want to be spoonfed.

  9. “I want a mechanic who knows how and does not guess fixing my brakes”…me, too, but I also want a mechanic who will admit it if there’s a problem he can’t solve, and ask for help from the factory or whoever.

    Excess confidence can be as fatal as lack of confidence.

  10. I agree with your point. Confidence is not enough. Testing the result is better.

  11. You know, I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I want students who are able to formulate opinions based on the available information. On questions of opinion, banning “I don’t know” makes a great deal of sense. On the other hand, when it comes to questions of fact, I’d like to see students say, honestly, “I don’t know.” Both of these go along with the idea that it’s OK to not to know everything, but it’s not OK not to be thinking.

  12. Yes, This is a good time to eradicate that loathsome phrase and get kids to start thinking.

  13. Why is it so complicated? A kid who says “I don’t know” just doesn’t know. That doesn’t mean the teacher ignores him or her. The teacher just takes the information as relevant and helps the student figure it out.

  14. Clearly what CaliforniaTeacherGuy is talking about is a student who answers “I don’t know” to an open-ended question, a student who uses the phrase to avoid having to think, a student who refuses to engage. He’s not talking about the student who, when asked “What’s the square root of 3025?”, answers “I don’t know.” But rather the one who gives that answer to questions like “Who would get along better in the 21st Century: Othello or Iago?” or “How did the Cold War impact what goes on in our world today?” or “What are the characteristics of a good business person?” “I don’t know” is not an appropriate answer to those types of questions. “I’m not sure, but I think …” is significantly better.

    All the time we hear from folks on this board who vilify (and rightfully so) teachers who will take the easy route and accept this answer, never requiring students to think, never requiring them to engage in their own education. I applaud a teacher who says, “No, you need to think about this and give me an intelligent response.”

  15. ” “I don’t know” is not an appropriate answer to those types of questions.”

    Sure it is. But there’s no need to create a false dichotomy. “I don’t know” doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion.

    I get so tired of people turning instruction into a morality play. Now it’s the language.

    Don’t say “I don’t know”, even if it’s true, because you have to pretend like you are thinking about it.

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